Thursday, February 21, 2008

Budget Attacks Children and Elderly

There is no getting away from the fact that the people who suffered as a result of the LibDem and Tory decision to stand by their budget proposals last night were children and older people. What does that say about the current administration?

Despite fierce opposition and press coverage in The Times and on the BBC the coalition administration decided to press on with their decision to close the Livesey Childrens Museum. The closure will save £140,000. Let's put that into context. Next year the Council will "spend" £900,000 on consultants to advise it on how to move offices. It is simply crazy and indefensible to argue that £140,000 could not be found to save the museum.

And the Libs and Tories have continued with their plans to increase the cost of Meals on Wheels by 50%. What rate of inflation was being looked at when that decision was taken? This is a real attack on some of our most vulnerable residents and will push some of them into genuine food poverty.

These cuts are apparently justified on the basis that the Government has been unduly mean to Southwark this year. Rubbish! The Council will be getting 2% more this year from Central Government than it did last year to provide the same services. And Labour's alternative budget proposed last night avoided these cuts and proposed a below inflation council tax increase of 2.1%. And I should add our budget proposals were seen and approved by the Council's finance chiefs.

Last night's decisions were about the choices and priorities of the Tories and LibDems on Southwark Council. And they chose to attack the young and the old. Doesn't it just remind you of the worst days of Mrs Thatcher?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Post Office Closures in Southwark

The Post Office has announced the list of 169 post offices it is considering closing in London. 8 of those are in Southwark:
46 Peckham Road
654 Old Kent Road
6 Gibbon Road, Nunhead
Melbourne Grove
1 Maddock Way, Walworth
Ilderton Road
221 East Street

It is a huge relief that the sub-post office in Crossthwaite Avenue has not made its way onto the list - it may be that the past two years campaigning to save that particular Post Office and parade of shops have paid dividends.

But the proposed closures will mean real problems for many people in the borough. Many residents of South Camberwell use the post office in Melbourne Grove and Veronica and I will be working with local people to argue the case to stop that proposed closure.

It is disappointing that the Council as a whole will not be submitting a response to the consultation process, as evidence suggests that councils which present detailed responses supported by sounds business cases and statisitics are more likely to persuade the Post Office to withdraw closure plans.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Southwark's Budget 2008/09

Next week Council Assembly will meet to set Southwark's Council Tax for the coming year. Proposals to be considered by the Tory/LibDem Executive this evening suggest that their proposal will be for a 4% Council Tax increase, together with a 50% increase in Meals on Wheels charges; the closure of the Livesey Childrens Museum on the Old Kent Road, and huge cuts to the Community Warden programme.

For the last month the Leader of the Council has used every opportunity to scare residents about cuts to local services, from the continued regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate to the closure of Camberwell Leisure Centre. In fact, and not surprisingly, none of those threatened cuts have made it through to the final budget proposals.

But the cuts and increased charges which are proposed hit young people and older people in the borough the hardest. The LibDems talk about tackling poverty, but their budget proposals hit those in most need the hardest. And this is not a budget about prudence and tough choices - it is about cynical election planning. The reason why the Livesey Museum must close in order to save £140,000 is because the LibDems and Tories want to bank that money in reserve funds for future years - so that they can produce a lower Council Tax increase "out of the hat" in time for the 2010 local elections.

To my mind a museum staying open NOW so that it can continue to serve the 17,000 children who visit it each year is of much greater service to the people of Southwark than £140,000 sitting in a reserve fund for election purposes. And a 50% increase in Meals on Wheels, imposed upon some of our most vulnerable residents regardless of their ability to pay, is appalling and mean spirited. What inflation index are the LibDems and Tories looking at when they think that a 50% increase is reasonable?

Labour will propose an alternative budget which will mean that for the sixth year in a row, a Labour Council in Southwark would have delivered a lower Council Tax increase. And we will use the recognised Bank of England inflation index - the consumer price index, as the guide for judging what is affordable for Council Tax payers in Southwark.

And by freeing up money which would otherwise sit in reserves or go to pay consultants and agency staff our budget amendment will mean that we can keep the Livesey Childrens Museum open; that those reliant on Meals on Wheels will not have to find ANY increase this year, and which will invest more money in community safety and the services which people look to the Council to provide.

I am proud to be part of a party which is serious about tackling poverty, and whose deeds match its words. I just hope that not too many vulnerable people have to suffer food poverty and not too many children lose the opportunity to visit their local museum before we have the opportunity to deliver on our promises for the people of Southwark.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Southwark's CPA Assessment

Yesterday the Audit Commission published its latest verdict on Southwark and all other local councils in England and Wales. The verdict is contained within the Comprehensive Performance Assessment or CPA and shows Southwark as a 3 star (out of 4) authority which is improving well. This is good news but there is one striking feature about this year's scorecard - the fact that housing services have dropped from 3 stars to 2 stars and the only area of the Council where the score has fallen.

Southwark scored just 1 out of 4 on its performance indicators for managing council housing - and was judged as being below the lower threshold for rent collection and arrears; average re-let times; average weekly management costs; satisfaction of all tenants with Southwark's overall service and satisfaction with participation for all tenants.

It is clearly worrying that our housing services score has been marked down, but should not really come as a surprise to anyone who has any knowledge of the huge difficulties faced by tenants in Southwark. And it does suggest that the LibDems decision to put a Tory in charge of housing since May 2006 has been a huge mistake.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Camberwell Grove Update and Online Petition

Last Thursday Cllr Paul Noblet announced that Camberwell Grove rail bridge would re-open after works had been completed to install traffic lights and traffic barriers to regulate the flow of traffic over the weakened bridge. The announcement came after a two hour meeting where competing views were fully aired, and Andrew Downes, the Council's Traffic Officer, ruled out a scheme based on one-way traffic over the bridge due to safety fears. Andrew is in a difficult position, as he cannot sanction any scheme if he is aware of any potential safety problems - he would be opening himself and the Council up to a massive negligence claim.

I have always been opposed to a solution involving traffic lights, as it is bound to detract from the obvious merits of Camberwell Grove as an integral part of the conservation area. If we were not facing real time limits in this case I am sure that a wider review of road use in the area would enable us to come up with a solution which avoided traffic lights.

A couple of points should be made. Traffic lights will only be present until the rail bridge is replaced completely. To achieve that we have to lobby Transport for London and Network Rail. Secondly, Cllr Noblet did agree to urgently prioritise a transport review of Camberwell and neighbouring areas in order to develop a strategic answer to the current and anticipated problems of traffic congestion. Finally, there was agreement that we will have a meeting to assess the impact of the traffic light solution after about three months.

This whole episode has been incredibly difficult, and for the residents of Camberwell Grove some new problems are about to arise. Traffic lights in the middle of a beautiful street, queing polluting vehicles and a barrier which sounds like it belongs on a Formula 1 track will all be present in a few months time. These are all problems which are unacceptable for anything other than the short term. So the campaign for a new rail bridge has a new urgency. I have created an online petition - please sign it at

Scaring People is Bad Politics!

I am now convinced that the LibDems and Tories on Southwark Council have spent the past month deliberately scaring people about the state of the borough's finances. From conversations I have had with colleagues and Council officers it looks as if there will be no need for really major front-line service cuts this year, despite LibDem Leader Nick Stanton telling us since the start of the year that three leisure centres would have to close; there would be a halt to work regenerating the Aylesbury Estate and rumours of our museums having to shut.

This foolish scaremongering by Cllr Stanton has caused real upset to many local residents. Special meetings have had to be called with residents of the Aylesbury Estate in order to give them some reassurance, and myself and my colleagues have been bombarded with e-mails and telephone calls from many people pleading for our help in saving their local services.

It may be that the Libs and the Tories go ahead and implement some really severe cuts. But my understanding of the current proposed budget figures suggest that the services and projects highlighted by Cllr Stanton are not even on the list for cutbacks at present. So if those cuts do come, we will be arguing that they are certainly not necessary.

Only last week Cllr Stanton refused to give me any reassurance about the future of the Camberwell Leisure Centre after I had heard further rumours of its closure as a result of budget cuts.

It is all very well to create justified attention about the state of the Council's finances as a consequence of the Government's funding settlement; 70% of the Council's funding comes from Central Government; but it is another thing to frighten and panic people about basic service provision as part of a silly political game. Doesn't that sort of posturing and behaviour call to mind the antics of Derek Hatton and Liverpool Council in the 1980's? So shame on Cllr Stanton for unnecessarily frightening people about the future of their jobs and their services.

Our neighbouring borough of Lambeth have faced a similar increase in funding from the Government as Southwark, but they will be opening three new leisure centres this year; whilst Nick Stanton has made himself and his Executive colleagues look foolish with their talk of closing three leisure centres in our borough. As the title of this entry says - scaring people is bad politics!